Subtitle: Imagination taking power

My IPCC take-away: Imagine. Take Action. Repeat.

[Originally posted at TransitionNetwork.org] For those who care about the world and the people and creatures we share it with, the last 6 weeks has offered a barrage of dire news. The new IPCC report called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. We learnt that since the time the Beatles broke up and I was born (I claim no scandalous link between those two events), human activity has caused a 60% decline in mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.

We’ve seen the German government, whose ‘Energiewende’ we were all celebrating a few years ago, dragging away protesters trying to prevent the clearing of an ancient woodland in order to create an open cast coal mine. Oh, and Brazil just elected a fascist who has vowed to turn much of the Amazon, that vital global carbon store, into farmland, merging the departments of environment and agriculture so as to ensure maximum cheap beef burger output. My own personal WTF moment was the US Department of Justice arguing last week, in their attempt to overturn a court case brought by 21 young people, that “there is no right to ‘a climate system capable of sustaining human life’”.  Er, excuse me? Is anyone actually taking this stuff seriously? Grief and rage feel an entirely appropriate response. As Bill McKibben put it, “we’re running out of options and we’re running out of decades”.

For those who care about the world and the people and creatures we share it with, the last 6 weeks has offered a barrage of dire news. The new IPCC report called for “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. We learnt that since the time the Beatles broke up and I was born (I claim no scandalous link between those two events), human activity has caused a 60% decline in mammals, birds, fish, reptiles and amphibians.

We’ve seen the German government, whose ‘Energiewende’ we were all celebrating a few years ago, dragging away protesters trying to prevent the clearing of an ancient woodland in order to create an open cast coal mine. Oh, and Brazil just elected a fascist who has vowed to turn much of the Amazon, that vital global carbon store, into farmland, merging the departments of environment and agriculture so as to ensure maximum cheap beef burger output. My own personal WTF moment was the US Department of Justice arguing last week, in their attempt to overturn a court case brought by 21 young people, that “there is no right to ‘a climate system capable of sustaining human life’”.  Er, excuse me? Is anyone actually taking this stuff seriously? Grief and rage feel an entirely appropriate response. As Bill McKibben put it, “we’re running out of options and we’re running out of decades”.

On my recent visit to the amazing Art Angel project in Dundee, which uses art to help people with mental health issues, anxiety and depression back into the world, I was told that the key aspects of what they create are “safety and hope”.  In the people I spoke to there I saw the rekindling of their imaginations, their connection to the future, because of the safety and hope now in their lives that wasn’t there before.

It feels vital to me that alongside the declaration of a ‘climate emergency’ and the very welcome and needed wave-upon-wave of civil disobedience that the recently-launched Extinction Rebellion are calling for, we must never lose sight of the need to fire the imagination about the future it is still possible to create. Research published recently reminds us that making changes in our own lives, living the change that’s needed, and talking about it with others, does have an impact on the thinking of those around us. The same goes for the projects that our communities undertake too.

Those stories are infectious. Really bold, amazing, world-changing, imagination-firing stuff is happening all over the world, even though you most likely won’t see it on the BBC News. If you haven’t heard about what’s happening in RojavaJacksonCleveland or Iceland, or countless other places too, then you need to really bathe yourself in that stuff. And of course without the policy space and change that results from direct-action like the Extinction Rebellion, making low carbon alternatives happen continues to be like swimming against a very strong tide.

Alongside the call to mobilise hundreds of thousands of people to get arrested, and the call, being heeded by more and more companies and even nations to divest from fossil fuels, what if a similar call invited people to occupy empty shops on their High Street and reopen them as stores that model a low carbon future, and create spaces for conversation and connection? Or playful artistic events that bring together activists and artists to ‘makeover’ their place so people wake up to find themselves in the world we’re talking about, the world where we made it? Acts, if you like, of non-violent anticipatory futures-building in very public places.  As David Graeber wrote, “it’s one thing to say ‘Another World is Possible’. It’s another to experience it, however momentarily”.

While I completely understand that grief and despair are, right now, entirely appropriate, I tend to agree with Dee Hock that “it’s far too late, and far too urgent for pessimism”. Last week I spoke with Kali Akuno at Cooperation Jackson in Mississippi, about the amazing work they’re doing there rebuilding their economy around co-operatives and social justice. He told me: “Wallowing in a defeatist attitude is a sure way to be defeated. The lesson from Mississippi is that we need to stay grounded and utilise what opportunities we have”.

I find it helps to see growth-based economics as being a war on imagination, feeding the inequality, disconnection and anxiety which directly undermines it, creating what Henry Giroux calls the ‘disimagination machine’.  I love this, from ‘Rant’ by Diane di Prima:

“The war that matters is the war against the imagination

all other wars are subsumed in it….

the war is the war for the human imagination

and no one can fight it but you/ & no one can fight it for you

The imagination is not only holy, it is precise

it is not only fierce, it is practical

men die everyday for the lack of it,

it is vast & elegant”.

Last week, Preston, the northern English city implementing a radical approach which is, in essence, city-scale Transition, was chosen as “the most improved city in the UK”. This stuff works, it changes economies, lives and expectations. The expansion of Transition, through the Municipalities in Transition project, to focus on the enabling and collaborator role that local government can play, is one of the most fascinating developments in its evolution.  Of course it’s not yet enough, by any stretch. But that doesn’t mean it couldn’t be.

My main take-away from the 2018 IPCC report is that there may still be time, but only if we can bring about a deep reimagining of what the world could be and how it might work. As Daniel Aldana Cohen put it, “we are only doomed if we do nothing”. While mass arrests and a firm “no” is vital, our “yes” being sufficiently rich in imagination, play,  invitation, joy, awe and possibility matters just as much. “Rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society”. How deeply do those words call to your imagination?  What yearning do they evoke? What possibilities and delights do they invite, what do they call you to step up and do?

As the great Captain Beefheart once said, “fifty years from now you’ll wish you’d gone ‘wow’”. It may well be that the degree to which our work evokes “wow”, here and now, may turn out to be the best indicator we have of its success, and indeed our ability to navigate the next 20 years may, as much as anything else, depend on our ability to cultivate it in those around us.

* The ‘Imagine. Take Action. Repeat’ from the title of this blog is not my own creation, it is unashamedly purloined from this video by the brilliant Centre for Story-Based Strategy.  All images by James McKay are taken from Paul Chatterton’s new book ‘Unlocking Sustainable Cities‘. 


Comments

  1. Don Hall
    November 13, 2018

    Thanks for this, Rob. I attended the Global Climate Action Summit in San Francisco this past September, and my main takeaway was similar to yours: we need to involve many more ordinary people (not just politicians and CEOs) in fully imagining how we will actually begin to reverse global warming. Right before the Summit, California Governor Jerry Brown signed an Executive Order, pledging that his state will become carbon-neutral by 2045. Surely this is commendable, but the crucial question, “How will California make this a reality?” was left largely unanswered. Can top-down solutions like big solar farms really get us all the way there, and even if they can (which I deeply doubt), won’t they just reinforce the growing social and economic disparities that plague our world today? As I see it, everyone needs to get involved in shaping the world to come, starting with their beloved local communities. Otherwise, I fear that even the most ambitious carbon-reduction pledges and schemes will prove to be just a bunch of hot air.

  2. Klaudia van Gool
    November 22, 2018

    Hi Rob, inspired by your article in Permaculture Works and this blog, I brought the subject of imagination to a peer mentoring group. I ran a visualisation, getting people to imagine a brighter future and we discussed both what people experienced and their experience of imagination in their lives. What struck me was the feeling that I experienced of hope and possibility and the awareness of the weight carried by being alive at this time, and it dropping away. And for that it was hugely beneficial. Using imagination to reconnect with hope and possibility, frees us up to act now. Active Hope in action.

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